Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear launches new Olsen farm exhibit


By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Hattie Olsen, the story goes, once fell through the attic of the farmhouse where she lived with husband Charles in Port Oneida. She was fine, but her boys laughed when they saw her legs protruding from the ceiling. Life was hard, but there was also humor on the farmstead where the Olsens lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Charles, when he grew older, would sometimes fall while plowing the land. The horses knew him and knew every inch of the land, would stop and wait for him to get up.

These stories come alive in a new exhibit at the Charles and Hattie Olsen Farm in what’s now the National Park’s Port Oneida Rural Historic District. The exhibit opens to the public on Saturday, June 18. A ribbon cutting commences at 11 a.m., followed by words from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore deputy superintendent Tom Ulrich, Port Oneida descendants, and a monologue by author Anne-Marie Oomen.

The exhibit is a project of Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, which maintains the Olsen house. It tells the history and evolution of Port Oneida through the lens of the Olsen family, including the preservation efforts of the district, and other historic properties in the park. According to Preserve executive director Susan Pocklington, Port Oneida may be the largest intact and preserved agricultural community in the United States. She will remain a rare gem as more agricultural landscapes are lost to development.

“This exhibits tells the heritage of Port Oneida and the story of all of us,” said Pocklington. “Somewhere in each of our background’s is someone who lived in a rural community. So this story tells about traditions and heritage and craftsmanship and heroism, and the resourcefulness of people who lived here and farmed here.”

The Olsen exhibit narrates the daily life not just of this family farm or of Port Oneida, but of other historic properties within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, including at Good Harbor, Glen Haven, Platte River and the Manitou Islands.

“It’s not just a static exhibit,” added Pocklington. “This is about opening windows to what is here in the Park from a historic standpoint and encouraging people to explore it and appreciate it, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to save it.”

Hattie Olsen’s love of flowers is on display outside the house. Inside are replicas of the cooking stove and other kitchen items that the family would have used. “It’s wonderful when people can really value the craftsmanship of these buildings, particularly when society today is very throw away,” said Pocklington.

The exhibit, itself, includes a digital quilt display featuring voices from the community, presented in an interactive manner that should appeal to children. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore worked with Preserve to prepare the exhibit, including writing, editing and graphic design.

The Charles and Hattie Olsen Farm exhibit has already touched the lives of some who have family history here. Janet Olsen, the granddaughter of Charles and Hattie, recently traveled from out of state to visit the farm on the same day she buried her sister. “She cheered up and was moved when she saw we were preserving her family’s old homestead,” said Pocklington. “She loved our plans for the exhibit.”

Penny Szczechowski, who sits on Preserve’s board of directors, is a descendent of the Burfiend family, which also lived and farmed at Port Oneida. She spent a few weeks every summer of her childhood staying at the nearby Burfiend farm. “It’s important to me that all of it be preserved,” said Szczechowski. “It keeps my childhood alive to preserve this part of the Park.”

She also appreciates what her forefathers endured. “Just looking at the faces of the people shows the hardships they went through. Life was not easy for them.”

Following the ribbon cutting and the oral presentations on June 18, other activities will start at noon and continue at the farm until 4 p.m. The public is invited to bring their lunch and then enjoy dessert and beverages provided by Preserve. Take a horse and wagon ride while hearing about Port Oneida history; talk with Tom Van Zoeren, author of several Port Oneida history books; try your hand at a potato planter; listen to music, and participate in outdoor games or a children’s treasure hunt at 2 p.m. Bring your bike and get on the Heritage Trail in back of the farm.

New membership donations to Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear at the event will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor. The Olsen farm is located 3 miles north of Glen Arbor at 3164 W. Harbor Hwy (M-22) just west of Port Oneida road. Preserve is a partner group of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore committed to preserving and interpreting the historic structures and landscapes within the Park since 1998. For information visit